1 Thess 5:16-24
Until about forty years ago, this was called Gaudete Sunday, from the first word in today’s entrance verse from St. Paul’s letter to Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice! The Lord is near” [Phil 4:4-5]. His words are echoed in the beginning of the second reading, “Rejoice always, never cease praying: render constant thanks.” [1 Thess. 5:16]. In the first reading Isaiah tells us: “I rejoice heartily in the Lord, in my God is the joy of my soul” [Is. 61: 10]. And the responsorial psalm comes from the wonderful hymn of Mary from St. Luke’s gospel: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” [Luke 1: 46-47.
Traditionally, the violet vestments of Advent are also lightened today to rose, a forecast of the joyful feast that is just two weeks ahead. It is easy to see why the third Sunday got the nickname Gaudete. Call it “Rejoice Sunday.”
Even so, some people tend to get particularly grumpy, grouchy, and irritable at this time of year. Ebenezer Scrooge and the Grinch are very much with us. Of course there are always reasons to be unhappy and remorseful: war in the Middle East, the weather (though not here so much), injustice, racism, the flu, student loans and credit card debt — the price we pay for indulging in the commercial extravagance encouraged by what is now known as the shopping season. But there are much better reasons to be joyful. Let me suggest that one of them is not shopping till you drop.
The feast of Christmas itself certainly gives us cause to rejoice, especially those who are having a hard time of it. For if you recall, the first announcements of the coming of the Messiah were made to poor people — a young couple in a hick town in northern Galilee, some grimy shepherds, and if things haven’t changed a great deal, those wise men were academics rather than kings and weren’t paid enough. Teachers never are. But what brings joy is not power, fame, or wealth. Jesus made that clear enough. What do we celebrate, then? What gives us joy? To begin with, family.
In recent times some evangelical Christian churches, mainly the big warehouse churches, took a lot of heat because they decided not to have services on Christmas day, never mind the fact that they are having dozens of Advent services leading up to Christmas. But they felt that people (including the large staff at mega-churches) should be able to spend the day at home with their families. If that is how they wish to celebrate Christmas, what loss is that to us? Wish them well. And so far as I know, even Walmart will be closed on Christmas Day. It’s the only day of the year Walmart closes, so be strong.
As a Catholic, I rejoice in the gift of Advent itself. When I was a kid, we didn’t put up decorations or a tree until Christmas eve. Adevent was a time of waiting, of growing anticipation. We weren’t rich by any means, but decorating the tree became a party — we didn’t eat much, because it was also a day of fast and abstinence to prepare for the big feast the next day. But Mom always made tuna and pasta-shell salad, and that was enough. And we also knew that after Midnight Mass — and it was Midnight Mass in those days — brightly-wrapped gifts would mysteriously appear under the tree, and the next morning, we would open them before going to mass again, because my brother and I were altar boys and also in the choir. When we got older, we slipped gifts under the tree ourselves, just to give Santa a break. Socks and neckties and handerchiefs, plus a few toys when we were little.
Frankly, I think we celebrate Christmas too early now, and for the wrong reasons. We’re burned out on carols, cards, and decorations by December 17th — when, traditionally, the great “O Antiphons” were first sung — the origin of the hymn “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” We knew back when that Christmas was now just a week away! The excitement grew and grew. And the day itself was a magical time for celebrating and visiting and eating candy again.
In a word, Christmas was not developed to make the economy sound, or to pile up more unwanted and unneeded merchandise in the attic, basement, and garage. Christmas came into being way back in the fourth century to celebrate the gift of Jesus, our Savior, to recall the humble origins of our faith, to remind ourselves that the most needed and wanted presents anyone could want are peace on earth and good will among men and women who are not only God’s friends, but each other’s friends — God’s family, our true and real family. Not our customers or clients. It was a time to be especially generous to the poor, which is how the legend of St. Nicholas was born.
Getting back to Isaiah, who is so important in the liturgies of Advent, that old prophet understood not only why those who waited on God for help needed to be reminded to rejoice, but who they were likely to be. According to Luke’s Gospel, Jesus himself cited today’s reading from Isaiah 61 in his first sermon:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because God has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives,
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.
Then, putting down the scroll, he said, “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
If we know who we really are, and what we truly need, our response to such a message can only be joy. And, like John the Baptist and Jesus, our task is to spread the good news especially to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the world-weary, and prisoners of hopelessness. For if we don’t make the world a better and brighter place for those who really need it, we haven’t got the message yet.
We do it more by actions than by words, as both John the Baptist and St. Francis of Assisi told their followers. And believe me, that’s a lot harder.
May we grasp their message, and especially that of Jesus so that our Christmas – and everyone’s — may be truly joyful!